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Why Great Palestinian Victories Are Worse Than Defeats

Hamas today is in the same position as Yasser Arafat once was: sacrificing its people to a corrupted ideal

Edward N. Luttwak
September 16, 2014
Palestinian women walk past a mural depicting late Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (L) and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on May 4, 2014 in Gaza City.(Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)
Palestinian women walk past a mural depicting late Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (L) and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on May 4, 2014 in Gaza City.(Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

As soon as the shooting in Gaza stopped on Aug. 26, Hamas leaders came out of hiding to declare that they had won a great victory in their 50-day war with Israel—the 2014 Gaza war, which had been preceded by the Gaza wars of 2008 and 2012, which they had also declared to be great victories. In each war, the fierce-looking, black-clad, martyrdom-seeking Islamic warriors of Hamas were badly outclassed in hand-to-hand combat by seriously trained Israeli conscripts, while its rockets were mostly ineffectual, unlike Israeli artillery and air power. But Hamas certainly attracted worldwide sympathy by encouraging the photographing of dead and maimed bodies in al-Shifa Hospital, which the organization used as a briefing room and command post—and very few seemed to blame Hamas for starting it all, or even for the considerable number of children as well as adults killed by its own defective rockets. While both U.S. and European officials did blame Hamas for the war, they also deplored the “disproportionate” Israeli response—meaning that many more Palestinians died in the fighting.

As for the consequences of the 2014 Gaza war, only the future will tell. But in the meantime we can learn a lot from the outcomes of past Palestinian victories, which really do amount to a remarkable record of success—except for their final results.

One of the very greatest of all Palestinian victories was the invitation extended to Yasser Arafat to address the General Assembly of the United Nations on Nov. 13, 1974, an act that implied his recognition as the paramount leader of the Palestinians, fully empowered to represent them before the world and then to lead them once they acquired their state. And that, Arafat had made perfectly clear, was a Palestine that would include all of Israel—for it was not just the results of the recent 1967 war that Arafat and the PLO wanted to reverse, but rather those of the 1948-1949 war. In a speech that was frequently interrupted by vehement applause, Arafat repeatedly defined Israel and Zionism as imperialist, colonialist, aggressive, and racist, but not before thanking those who had striven hard to secure his invitation, including the Algerians and Kurt Waldheim, secretary general of the United Nations.

Both men could count themselves as very fortunate to have made it that far. Waldheim had loyally served in the Balkans during World War II on the staff of Gen. Alexander Löhr who was later executed for war crimes and might easily have shared his fate, instead of reaching the top at the United Nations by way of an Austrian diplomatic and political career (he knew nothing of the killings of partisans and Jews of course, not till long after the war). As for Arafat, a mere six years earlier he had been an almost unknown guerrilla leader when he was catapulted to fame and fortune by his victory over the Israeli army at Karameh on March 21, 1968. A year earlier the Israeli army had swiftly defeated the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six Days War of June 1967, so that the battle of Karameh was eagerly represented in the media as having shattered “the myth of Israeli invicibility”—the BBC just could not get enough of that story. Money and volunteers arrived to swell the ranks of Arafat’s movement Fath or Fatah (“conquest”), while Arab states offered their diplomatic support, launching Arafat on a trajectory of success that finally brought him to his apotheosis in New York.

It did not seem to matter at the time that Arafat’s men had in fact been routed at Karameh and that the 28 dead Israeli soldiers, who were the only evidence of Arafat’s victory, had been killed by Jordanian tanks that had opened fire unexpectedly. The Israelis reacted by capturing some 150 of Arafat’s men and killing many more, along with some 80 unfortunate Jordanians, who actually fought quite well, unlike Arafat’s men, most of whom simply lacked the training, cohesion, or discipline needed for combat. As for Arafat himself, he evidently had no talent at all for military leadership. The Jordanians duly passed the word to their fellow Arabs, but in 1968 such was the eagerness for an Arab victory and for an Arab who could win even little battles with the Israelis that the myth was much preferred to the sad reality.

That, however, was of no consequence on Nov. 13, 1974, and Arafat’s elevation at the United Nations was but a prelude to more great successes. A year later, on Nov. 10, 1975, the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 by a vote of 72 to 35 with 32 abstentions to endorse Arafat’s claim by determining “that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Aside from the supposed “non-aligned” who must always vote against the side upheld by the United States, the Muslim member states, and ten members of the then-Soviet bloc, the 72 pro votes included Brazil, which must forever slam Israel (in August 2014 it withdrew its ambassador) because of its entirely futile quest for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council.

By then Arafat had won an even greater victory: Resolution 3237 of the United Nations General Assembly had granted “observer status” to the Palestine Liberation Organization that Yasser Arafat very largely controlled, obviously a prelude to its elevation as the government of the new member state of Palestine.

At the time, Israel was still just emerging from the traumatic consequences of the October war of 1973, with its thousands of casualties and very high costs that left its 2.7 million Jews battered and enduringly impoverished by high military expenditures, so that Arafat’s U.N. triumphs were even more depressing, and seemingly even more consequential.

Many things could have been imagined on Nov. 13, 1974, when Arafat spoke with a pistol holster on his belt to offer his guarantee of peace in a perfectly democratic Palestine that would include all of Israel under his own benevolent rule—a prospect warmly applauded by a majority of U.N. member states, including the largest: China, India, and the Soviet Union.

Many things could have been imagined in November 1974—but not perhaps that 40 years later Arafat’s great victories would be half-forgotten historical footnotes, while the battered and impoverished Israel of 1974 would have become infinitely stronger, with a Jewish population more than doubled and an economy altogether more advanced.

All sorts of twists and turns marked those 40 years—wasted years mostly for the Palestinians, years mostly well used by Israel. But there is some comfort for the historically minded in the root cause of Arafat’s downfall: He fell victim to his own Karameh myth of combat effectiveness, making the not-uncommon error of believing his own lies. Instead of pursuing the diplomatic path in which he had been so successful, while rigorously abstaining from any combat for which neither he nor his men had any real aptitude or capacity, Arafat embarked on the construction of a PLO army in southern Lebanon, which the Lebanese civil war had left open to him—in part a conventional army supplied by the Soviet Union with tanks, artillery, and vast quantities of mines and small arms.

That is how and why eight years after his U.N. triumph, in June 1982, Arafat ended up hiding in a basement in West Beirut under close siege by the Israeli army. Confident in his own military talent and the abilities of his men, Arafat had believed that even if his army could not march down to Haifa, it could at least put up a stalwart resistance that would again win him support from across the Arab world and beyond. For the purpose, many PLO men were sent to the Soviet Union to be trained in armored warfare, artillery and communications, with others went to officer schools (where their instructors reportedly assessed them as “not officer material”). But when Israeli forces entered Lebanon on June 6, 1982, Arafat’s army crumbled so quickly that he barely made it to Beirut, which the Israelis soon besieged—Arafat promptly compared it to the Battle of Stalingrad.

With his men more eager to surrender than to fight, Arafat was ultimately rescued from capture with Israel’s consent, but only to be sent into distant exile in Tunisia. A further decade would pass before Arafat again regained an important role as the leader of the Palestinian Authority installed under the 1993 Oslo Accords, before again losing everything when he once more resorted to violence, instead of agreeing to the terms he had been offered at Camp David in July 2000. Still in the grip of his own myth, according to which he was the only undefeated general in the Middle East, he evidently believed that his uprising (intifada) could succeed in “shaking off” the Israelis—it merely succeeded in causing more suffering for the Palestinian population.

What makes this outcome all the more remarkable was that Arafat really had a very good chance of success in 1974. By then, peace negotiations were vigorously under way in the aftermath of the October 1973 war, both between Egypt and Israel and also between Jordan and Israel. Egypt did not want Gaza back and Jordan’s King Hussein was ready to give up the West Bank. Only seven years had passed since the 1967 war, and the only West Bank settlements that mattered to the Israelis were the four re-established Gush Etzion villages. Along with the Latrun salient on the re-opened road o Jerusalem, they amounted to a tiny fraction of the West Bank.

So, there was a clear path ahead for Arafat. Setting aside his grudges against King Hussein and Anwar Sadat, he could have done his best to convey as much support as possible for their peace efforts from both willing Arab states and the fractious Palestinians, in the knowledge that neither had a better option, and certainly not a military option. The October 1973 war was the best evidence for that: Both Egypt and Syria had attacked with well-crafted plans and a maximum effort on Oct. 6, very successfully catching the Israelis by surprise, thus starting the war in optimal circumstances. Yet a mere 20 days later, advancing Israeli forces were just 101 kilometers from Cairo and 40 kilometers from Damascus, with no effective Egyptian or Syrian forces left to fight in front of them. Anwar Sadat’s conclusion was that Egypt could only succeed by peaceful diplomacy, and Syria’s Assad regime resolved never to attack Israel again, except by way of expendable proxies, Palestinians then, Lebanon’s Hezbollah later.

Arafat too should have understood the imperative of avoiding any form of combat with Israel, to then use the prestige of his 1974 U.N. triumph to loyally serve Egypt and Jordan, empowering them to negotiate for Gaza and the West Bank for his demilitarized Palestinian state, all set to cooperate peacefully with Israel.

But Arafat in 1974, like Hamas now, was entirely unwilling to accept what reality had to offer. He still demanded all of Israel for his Palestine, in effect asking the Israelis to surrender to his puny forces just after they had defeated the two most heavily armed Arab states. Another 14 years would pass before Arafat finally gave up his fantasy to issue a grudging recognition of the existence of an Israeli state within the 1967 lines in December 1988. By then, the West Bank was dotted with Israeli settlements, and the accumulated reaction to decades of threats and aggressions had shifted the balance of Israeli politics against a withdrawal. That Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Gaza strip on Sept. 1 , 2005, became the prelude to unending conflict instead of the construction of a Palestinian state , only reinforces the unwillingness to make the same experiment in the West Bank.

Hamas today is exactly in the same position as Arafat once was. Like him, it can command the services of young men dolled up to look like formidable warriors, only a few of whom can withstand close combat with Israel’s properly trained infantry. Like Arafat in Lebanon until 1982, Hamas can launch mostly ineffectual rockets into Israel but cannot blunt Israeli air and artillery counter-attacks which can destroy any identifiable target at will.

Like Arafat in the 1970s, Hamas can exploit its underdog status to attract the sympathy of the unreflective, and because of its Islamic identity it can attract global Muslim support from Detroit to Islamabad and beyond, to a greater extent than Arafat ever could in his prolonged “secular, democratic” phase, before he went Islamic in the year 2000 Al-Aqsa Intifada, supposedly launched to protect the mosque.

Just like Arafat in the 1970s, Hamas has a very broad base of external support that is entirely indifferent to the rights and wrongs of the conflict. For Arafat, it was the Soviet Union with all its satellites (but for recalcitrant Romania, for which maintaining relations with Israel was a declaration of independence from the Soviet Bloc). The Middle East was then the focus of Soviet global strategy, and the Moscow leadership had become convinced that it could best out-influence the United States by uncritically supporting Arafat and the Palestinians. From his Soviet support base, Arafat therefore obtained unstinting diplomatic support at the United Nations as well as arms, but only to discover that U.N. hot air is only hot air, while weapons would only get himself and his men into trouble. But the huge drawback of Soviet support was that it positioned Arafat as an antagonist of the United States, the only power that could have advocated for him with Israel, as it did for Egypt and Jordan.

For Hamas the broad base of uncritical external support is even broader, stretching from Dearborn, Mich., to Islamabad and beyond. In vehemently siding with Hamas, Muslim opinion is not moved by mere religious solidarity. It is rather that Israel’s superior strength in war presents a very personal problem for each believing Muslim, and Hamas seems to offer a remedy. It all starts with Islam itself, as a faith originally validated by the immense conquests of the first Muslims. The Quran is replete with categorical promises of victory for true believers, and Islam as a religion still rests on those promises—there is not much there for the meek or the weak. Hence the unending sequence of Muslim defeats of the last century and more generates terrible inner doubts about the truth of Islam—doubts now vented in many varieties of violence in a great many places from Mindanao and southern Thailand to Niger and Nigeria, and not just across South Asia and the Middle East. In almost all of these conflicts, enemies perceived as Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish keep winning, aggravating inner doubts and outward aggression.

Defeats inflicted by Jews are an even more acute problem, because in the Quran they are written off as weaklings, easily defeated—so that making victorious heroes out of Hamas, which defines itself as Islamic rather than Palestinian, is some sort of remedy. Its video re-enactments of the August 2014 fighting, featuring pathetic Israeli soldiers bursting into tears before being killed or surrendering meekly to the noble warriors of Hamas have been wildly popular, while rioting demonstrators in Berlin and Paris in August 2014 comforted themselves with shouts of “Remember Khaibar!” evoking Muhammad’s conquest of the Jewish oasis of Khaibar in the year 629—thus testifying both to their collective historical memory and also to the dearth of notable Muslim victories over Jews over the last 1,385 years.

But for Hamas, this global Muslim support, however gratifying it might be, is just as damaging as Soviet support was for Arafat during all the years when he was at the peak of his political fortunes, and might have gained a state within the West Bank and Gaza by making the necessary compromises with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, with American support.

What Hamas can achieve in this world is to keep what it has—the control of Gaza by force of arms if not consent—and then to develop Gaza in every possible way by soliciting aid and investment and securing easy access in and out by rigorously abjuring any form of violence against its two neighbors, Israel and Egypt. Soon enough, in its rising prosperity, Gaza would have both a port and airport, instead of blockades and tunnels. There are eager donors and all else needed is available, notably Israeli and Egyptian reciprocity. But of course Hamas would be abjuring global Islamic support, and would immediately have to fight it out with Islamic Jihad, which serves Iran and has no interest at all in peace.

That global Islamic support at the United Nations—and everywhere else from Sweden to Sydney—makes and will make absolutely no difference to the misery of everyday life in Gaza, should be the decisive consideration for responsible leaders. But just as Arafat kept sacrificing the living Palestinians for the sake of his own idea of Palestine as he jetted around the world, Hamas leaders will ruthlessly sacrifice the people of Gaza for Islam, not without rewards for themselves (Gulf money is pouring in) to assuage the pain. The tranquility of the West Bank, and the loyalty of Israel’s Arab citizens throughout 50 days of hard to watch fighting, show that they know very well what Hamas has to offer: death, destruction, and failure.


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Edward N. Luttwak is a contractual strategic consultant for the U.S. government and an author.

Edward N. Luttwak is a contractual strategic consultant for the U.S. government and an author.